In Other Words | The Beauty of the World and the Truth of All Things by Rehab Bassam
 
 
Courtesy: Salma AlGamal
 

Translator’s note:

More than ten years ago, I was an undergraduate student of English literature, and attending a book club where we read and hosted young writers who had just published their first works. Rehab Bassam’s pink-covered Rice Pudding for Two was one of the titles we chose. When released, Bassam’s book was not received fondly by literary “high priests” in Egypt. It was published as part of a series printed by Dar El Shorouk that moved texts by three authors the blogging world to the published book. The series was criticized for being “lazy” and accused of “destroying” language, particularly because it mixed colloquial Egyptian with standard Arabic. Readers like me, however, got a taste of a singular literary voice, one that remains rare in the Egyptian publishing world: the young woman writer speaking of the personal.

Rehab Bassam’s blog, “hadouta,” is a trove of stories, where fiction blends with the personal. The title of the book comes from a story posted on the blog on October 18, 2005. When the book was published in 2008, it brought a much-needed voice into the literary scene. Bassam’s sensitive writing is enticing and brings to the world of fiction a style that mixes humor, clarity, memory and many sensual details. The blogosphere allowed a voice like Bassam’s to overcome the generic binary of blogs and literature, a voice that wrote of the dailiness of a young woman in this city’s physical and emotional mazes. Moving such texts from the medium of the blogosphere to the publishing world made it available to more readers. While the book is still in print, the blogosphere has long been taken over by social media where Facebook and its posts have come center stage.

It would seem natural that more women from Bassam’s and my generation would be producing texts of the same nature, yet the literary scene still feels lacking in voices like Bassam’s. In recent years we have witnessed more women publishing under the broad genre of life writing: Iman Mersal’s How to Mend: Motherhood and its Ghosts (2017), Nadia Kamel’s Al Mawlouda (Born, 2018), Salma El Tarzi’s An Attempt to Remember My Face (2019) and Randa Shaath’s The Sand Mountain (2020). Nonetheless, for the past years, I have been waiting for more literature like Bassam’s to surface in bookstores, literature that speaks of life in the magical guise of fiction in the first person. Bassam’s fiction speaks for a generation of women that seems to have no voice in the world of published books. While waiting for literary voices like hers to take space in the new literary scene, it seems poignant to revisit this book and bring one of its quirkiest texts to the present moment with this translation. The magic of this short story lies in how the fiction and the personal blend to recreate the childhood of the generation in their thirties and forties now. I have never read a story that speaks of my childhood like “The Beauty of the World and the Truth of All Things.” This is an ode to summer, an ode to stories that speak for a time that has rarely been written out in literature so beautifully, and an ode to women writing stories regardless of genres and their functions in the publishing world.

 

 

Tamer says that he loves me so I slap him. It was a wonderful summer!

Whenever I remember that summer, I feel it must’ve lasted more than three months. Our days were all the same yet so different. In the morning I’d go to Samah who lived next door on the ground floor; they had a balcony overlooking the street. (Fifteen years later, this street is as quiet and lazy as it was then, despite the huge shopping mall that turned all the apartments we had lived in into internet cafés and shops selling mobile phone accessories). Samah and I would play with her dolls, and I would come with the necessary fabric to make them clothes using a very basic sewing technique: we wrap the fabric around the doll and pin it. We’d wrap it around her waist once, then around her whole body, or just around her arms and legs like a mummy, or we’d just tie it around her head. One day we have white fabric so it’s a wedding dress. Another day, the fabric is black, so the dolls should attend a funeral.  If it’s a print with shiny, glittery patterns, then it was time for parties and celebrations.

When we grew bored with the dolls we’d start our tea parties. (Later in life, I will remember those tea parties whenever I read Alice in Wonderland and realize that our parties were not much different than those Alice, the Rabbit and the Mad Hatter used to throw). Samah had a pink plastic tea set. She would bring a bottle of cold water and I’d get us some plain biscuits. We’d fill the small teapot with water and pour each other tea. We break the biscuits into smaller pieces so we can eat them in the minute dessert plates. Sometimes there would be grapes, so we’d place a grape on every plate and sit in silence, sipping water and eating grapes and observing any and every person (or thing) that passed below the balcony.

Samah wants to be an air hostess when she grows up, so she makes a paper hat similar to that of a stewardess and wears it during our tea parties. I tell her that she should definitely grow up to be an air hostess because the hat really suits her. I want to own a restaurant when I grow older, so I buy a mini set of cooking pots and pans, a tiny oven, and an even tinier fridge, and get busy mixing the water to make an array of “delicious,” watery dishes that Samah slurps instantly, praising me to the sky and telling me that I must become a cook because I am a natural. All the water we had consumed — in its many forms — would eventually bloat our bellies and I would return home for lunch.

At 5 pm sharp, we would meet up with the rest of our friends; we were more than 20 boys and girls.  That hour of the day has become a time I deeply cherish since then; I truly love sunsets but I love the way everything looks in the two hours preceding it even more. My brother and I would pass by Samah and her sister Basma, then we would all go to the little shop around the corner, Mini-Market Mahmoud, to get goodies: Jelly Cola (cola-flavored gelatin candy), Cono (ready-made ice-cream in cones), Lolita (frozen water with artificial coloring), mango Dolce-Up (an upgraded and bigger version of Lolita), Magic Gum (it changes color when you chew it), Renaissance Gum (a jaw-breaker, but you could make really big bubbles with it), and anything else that was colorful, crunchy and likely to irritate people around us and worry our parents.

We’d return to our street to find that the whole group had gathered there. We’d spend some hours doing various activities: running races (for five meters!), bicycle races, football matches (the girls’ team, The Flowers, loses 4–20 against the boys’ team, The Tigers … in both halves!), hide and seek, tag, ball tag … God! Now, when I think of the noise we used to make, I am secretly grateful to everyone who lived on our street for putting up with us, and ignoring us, and I have taken an oath to never ever be irritated by the sound of a child playing on the street.

We feel hungry so we buy grilled corn cobs, and when we don’t feel full I decide that the boys should get us something to eat. One time, the boys disappear for a bit, then return with lots of mangoes from a garden down the street, the old owner of which had traveled to spend the summer with his daughter. We are delighted with the precious catch and divide it between us. Then we are hit in the face with the “bitter” truth; the mangoes haven’t ripened yet. And so, we go to Mini-Market Mahmoud to buy more ice-cream cones to erase the bitter aftertaste of the mangoes. If I’m not mistaken, the ready-wrapped ice-cream cones had made their debut that summer in Egypt, because we were consuming them in huge amounts and with every cone we would be overcome with wonder at this delicious invention.

In the evening, I would temporarily resign my dream of being a cook, and turn to the world of fame, impersonating a TV presenter. Everyone would impersonate different characters, so that I’d interview them all — no exceptions — although I don’t approve of all the characters they came up with: A professional criminal making statements from the underworld. A boss lady from the women’s market in Alexandria, Zaneat al-Settat, explaining to me how she arranges all the beads and sequins in her shop. A ballet dancer having trouble with his tights. A dancer in a night club who wants to experiment with a new style of dance while wearing flippers and a swimming tube. A submarine captain, a pianist, an intelligence officer, a beggar.

And when the time came when most of our friends have traveled to the seaside, leaving the street all to us, I would bring out my cooking set and we’d sit on the stairs of Samah’s building. One day, Samah comes with the water and the grapes and Amal comes with liquid soap (to this day I have no idea why she brought it). I mix the water with the soap, getting ready to add the remaining imaginary ingredients, and as we sit like that, Sherif comes down the stairs and finds us busy cooking. Sherif was two years older than us: a very tall child for his age, kind, and gentle with the girls. He treated us all like his sisters, but he did everything swiftly and seemed to always be in a hurry.

He is delighted to see us, and he asks, “What are you girls doing?” but figures it out before anyone can answer; “You’re cooking? What are you cooking?” We don’t want to reveal our secret recipe, so we try to think of something else to say, but before we can reply, Sherif sees the grapes. He guesses the plat du jour: “Grape juice?” Amal’s tongue is finally untied: “Yes, grape juice,” and Sherif holds the cup of diluted liquid soap and gulps it down! We can see his eyes widening with fear above the rim of the cup, but we are shocked and we can’t speak. Sherif places the cup on the stairs and runs up to his apartment. Amal, Samah and I sit on the stairs, feeling guilty because we have caused the death of our gentle friend using diluted liquid soap. Samah sighs, wondering: “Who’s going to be the referee now in the matches if Sherif dies?” Amal and I look at her, bewildered, our eyes filled with sorrow.

We don’t see Sherif over the next two days, but we are too scared to ask after him, because someone could accuse us of murder. On the third day, Sherif comes down to play as usual and doesn’t mention anything about the alleged grape juice. He does, however, take me aside and advise me to wash the grapes first before making the juice next time, instead of directly adding the soap to the juice. I promise him not to make grape juice ever again because “I don’t even like grapes!” but he gently says: “No, don’t say that, the juice was very nice!”

***

I tell Samah and Amal that I read an article on how to make chalk in the Mickey Mouse pocket comics, and it seemed very easy. I suggest that we save the money we spend on chalk and make it ourselves. Amal diverts my attention to a small setback in the plan: where do we get the quicklime needed to make the chalk? Samah cries excitedly that Tamer’s parents are fixing something in their home and that she has seen a heap of quicklime in their balcony, which was also on the ground floor. Since they were all in Belbeis then for a few days, we could “borrow” a small, unnoticeable amount of quicklime from them. I am thrilled, and I tell Samah that it must be her that goes to get the quicklime since the brilliant idea was hers to begin with. Samah is excited to play her role in the grand chalk-making scheme, and so she takes a small box and immediately begins executing the mission.

But, as soon as Samah jumps onto Tamer’s balcony, we hear the sound of a car and people approaching. We look over the fence and see Tamer’s father…with three other peop

le! Tamer’s dad was a kind man, but he had a quick temper, and you could smell his silent anger whenever he saw any of us roaming around his beloved garden. Amal and I run to hide, after whispering to Samah to lie flat on the floor of the balcony and stay silent. Tamer’s father enters the apartment, opens the windows and turns all the lights on to receive his guests. We tiptoe to the balcony and toss a bunch of grapes to Samah to ease her time in captivity. One of us has to make sure that Tamer’s father wouldn’t go out to the balcony or look out the window so that we can save Samah and take the quicklime. I tell Amal: “When I laugh out loud, tell Samah to jump from the balcony, and you take the quicklime and run to Samah’s house.”

I knock on the door of Tamer’s apartment, and his father comes to the door. He is delighted to see me:

“Hello, hello! You saw me and thought that Tamer is back, didn’t you?”

I smile like an idiot, so he says, “Well, missy, he isn’t back yet, I came on my own.”

I try to think fast: “Well, uncle… mmm… it’s just that… mmm… Can I send him a letter?”

“You want to send him a letter? We’ve only taken him to the seaside, you know, we didn’t kidnap him!” He laughs but eventually agrees.

“The thing is, uncle … mmm … I don’t have a pencil and paper on me right now!”

“It’s no problem, go write the letter and bring it here.”

“No, uncle! I can’t! You see uncle… mmm… my finger, uncle… my finger…. my finger… this finger… and this one, and this one and this one, all my fingers, all of them… the door slammed on all of them.”

He looks irritated and is about to ask me to show him my injured fingers when some sort of divine intervention makes one of his friends call for him. He answers him and turns to me: “Come inside then and I’ll write the letter for you.”

I laugh loudly (to give Amal the signal) and Tamer’s father gives me a puzzled look (probably thinking that the damage done to my fingers had affected my mental faculties). My whole face lights up in a broad smile when I hear shuffling footsteps in the passage outside, and I am relieved that Samah is rescued.

I go in, and I dictate the letter to him:

 

My dear friend Tamer, 

The ginger cat gave birth. We killed a worm and arranged its funeral. A new issue of “Man of the Impossible” has come out.

Your dear friend,

Rehab Bassam

Cairo, August 16, 1987

 

I tell him in all seriousness: “That’s it. Thank you, uncle.”

He stifles his laugh: “No, thank you. I’m sure Tamer will be very happy to know that the worm died and the cat gave birth.”

Suddenly, we hear screams outside, and we both run out to witness a scene I will never forget: Samah in the garden, soiled with quicklime, jumping, jumping, jumping, and screaming: “Arrrrghh! Heeeeeeeeelp! Mommy! Mommyyyyyy!” while hysterically trying to take her clothes off. Tamer’s father screams when he sees her squishing the rose beds, and Amal screeches when she sees Samah stripping to her underwear. I jump into the garden in an attempt to help, and Amal jumps in after me, and we are followed by Tamer’s father, eager to throw us all out.

We understand later that there was a mouse hiding in the quicklime. When Samah went to borrow some of it, the mouse got frightened and jumped into her loose dress. Samah fell into the quicklime as she tried to rid herself of the mouse, then ran out onto the garden, hoping the mouse would voluntarily escape when it found it was in a familiar environment.

Uncle yells at us, so the mouse escapes, and the three of us run till we reach Samah’s house. We sit on the stairs in her building to gather our breath, and we pat Samah’s back to calm her down and beat the quicklime dust off her. Then, little by little, we start laughing until the tears roll down our faces.

I ask Samah: “What color was the mouse?”

“Color? I saw its teeth, I didn’t get to see what color it was!”

Amal says wisely: “Next time don’t wear loose clothes.” (As if that was the solution to the problem.)

Samah snaps at Amal: “And why were you screaming?”

“I didn’t even see the mouse! I thought you were going to undress in the middle of the street!”

Amal says: “That’s what your ideas come to: mice, mud, and quicklime! And we also ruined uncle’s garden!”

Samah asks me: “Wait, how did you distract uncle?”

“I told him that I wanted to write Tamer a letter.”

“A letter to Tamer! Why? Where is he?”

“I don’t know, it’s the first thing I could think of!”

“And what did you tell him in the letter?”

“I told him about the cat… and the worm…”

“The cat and the worm?!”

“Yes…”

The three of us look at each other and burst out laughing.

***

Once a week, I would take my bike and ride with three of my friends to the faraway bookstore to buy the “Mysteries.” (Years after leaving this house, I discovered that this bookstore was not as far as we had imagined. Perhaps because it was at the end of a large and long street, we felt it was far and therefore required safe company in broad daylight.) I remember that it used to be very hot on those days, and I also remember that this didn’t stop us from going.  We’d buy the newest issues of The File of the Future, Two in One, Man of the Impossible, Office 19, The Famous Five, 13 Devils and multiple editions from The Green Library’s fairy tale collection. After we’ve all purchased our cultural spoils, we secure a day for literary exchange. We pile our books on top of a small wooden chicken coop that we’ve covered in a printed tablecloth. In a tiny blue notebook, I jot down the titles of the books, the names of the borrowers, their addresses, and the date on which the borrowing happens. I decide on a fine of 25 piasters (or two Bimbo biscuits) in the case of losing or ruining a borrowed book.

We are playing cops and robbers, and Hamada gets to pick his team members (because he’s the oldest) so he picks all the “older” boys … and me! The other team is left with the girls and some younger children. We start playing, and it’s obvious that our team is winning. Samah stops the game and decides that “You can’t all be on the same team!” Hamada insists on keeping his teammates and Samah gets more annoyed and decides that she won’t play. She takes it all out on me. Crossing her arms over her chest she haughtily says: “It would dishonor us to play with a girl who hides under cars, anyway!”

I burst into tears as I try to explain to her that I like hiding under cars because it’s such an unexpected hiding place. All the boys sympathize with me, and a few of the girls, then the whole group is divided into those who side with me, and those who side with honor. For three days Samah does not come out to play with me, and I play with the boys. Their loudness bores me, and I long for Samah’s dolls, and the tea parties, so I go and tell her that I will not be hiding under cars anymore. However, she has to apologize to me and to everyone else. She agrees, and we are best friends again.

***

Tamer was a perfect lover. He’d climb trees to pick me the huge red flowers that I love. He’d fix my bike. He’d go alone to Mini Market Mahmoud (although he didn’t have a bike) to get me anything I suddenly felt like eating. He’d surprise me with small pieces of chocolate wrapped in cellophane, or shiny gift wrap, or just colored paper he got out of his recycled old copybook covers). He’d defend me in fights and let me score goals during the matches. He’d let me choose the games I wanted to play, and he’d never object to my friendships with the other boys. He’d never disapprove of my extra short skirts, he’d compliment my hair no matter what state it was in, and he’d never catch me when we played hide-and-seek. He’d write me short poems on very small pieces of paper (he’d actually write about the flowers and the trees and the squirrels, but since he gave me those clippings, I assumed that his poetic productions were addressed to me). Tamer was thirteen, I was ten.

One day, we were playing as usual in front of Samah’s house: some of us were going around in aimless circles on our bikes, a few others were playing charades, and some were just throwing rocks at each other, while another group was engrossed in perfecting the bubbles they were blowing with bubblegum. I, meanwhile, was getting a private lesson in football from Hamada. Hamada was trying to teach me how to actually score within the structure of the goal itself for a change (since every time I would kick the ball, the boys would have to retrieve it from tree tops and neighbor’s balconies and nearby gardens). After two hours of training, I finally manage to score inside the goal. I cry out loud in exuberant joy, and I jump up and down on the steps of the building, laughing uncontrollably. Suddenly, Tamer pops up beside me, appearing from God knows where.

Glumly he says: “This is not okay.”

I turn around, not entirely sure who he is talking to. I realize he is speaking to me: “What’s not okay?”

“Hamada shouldn’t be teaching you! I’m the one who’s supposed to teach you.”

“Teach me what?”

“Teach you how to play football!”

My face further contorts with noncomprehension: “Why should you be the one to teach me?”

“Because I love you!”

I stare at him in horror. I don’t feel my hand as it reacts independently, slapping him across the face. The smack echoes in the bottom of the building’s stairwell. I run down the steps as fast as I can when I see the anger rising in his eyes. He catches up with me and tries to twist my arm and slap me back. I slap him with my free hand and unleash my legs in a sprint but he doesn’t try to run after me this time; everyone knows I’m the fastest one on our street.

I sneak into the house so my mother wouldn’t ask me why I was back early. Because our apartment was on the ground floor, I could get into my room through the balcony overlooking the garden without being seen by anyone. I sit in my room trying to understand or figure out an explanation for what had just happened. I turn to my dolls: “See this disaster I’m in? What does he mean he loves me? What am I supposed to do now? This means we have to get married!”

During this moment of self-reflection, I suddenly hear a racket in the garden: the sound of something heavy falling on the ground, footsteps, the neighbors’ dog barking, then the sound of rushing water and feet running away. I look out through the glass of my bedroom window but don’t see anything. I hear my mother going out to the balcony and calling: “Who is it? Who is it?” and I hear our Greek neighbor shouting at her dog to shut up. I go out to the balcony and find that the water hose has drenched the garden completely, and I see one red shoe on the balcony railing. I know it’s Tamer. I look around me to try to understand what he was doing here, and I see my bike on the ground — with flat tires!

My father comes out to the balcony amidst the chaos: “What’s going on?”

I answer curtly: “Someone let the air out of my bicycle tires.”

“Who did that? Do you know who?”

“Tamer. That’s his shoe on the railing.”

“And what would make Tamer do that? Tamer is a polite boy. You must’ve done something.”

I nod, agreeing, but then I start to explain myself: “You see, Dad…”

Dad signals me to stop talking: “Hold it, hold it…if we start with ‘You see, Dad’ we’re not getting anywhere, there’s no end to this cheekiness of yours.”

He asks me to go and apologize to Tamer if I upset him.

I go out of the house again, this time fuming with anger. Why should I apologize? He loves me, and I apologize to him? This isn’t the same as that. Love is not like a bicycle! How could he do this to my bike? And he’s the one who started it! He said that he loved me!

As I walk towards Tamer’s house, I find his father walking in my direction. I run towards him: “Uncle, Tamer let the air out of my bicycle tires!”

“Oh, no. That’s really mean of him! I wonder why he would do such a thing.”

I am hesitant to reply.

Uncle leans down and whispers to me: “What did you do?”

Fed up with all these accusations, I decide to come clean: “I slapped him across the face!”

Uncle is shocked: “You slapped him across the face?”

“Yes! Because he said that he loves me … and now we have to get married!”

He is overtaken with laughter then he realizes that it’s “serious,” so he takes me by the hand, walks me to their house and calls for Tamer. Tamer appears, barefoot and blushing. Uncle says that he will get us something to drink and leaves us alone together.

I sit in a state of stubborn silence. He sneaks glimpses at me. I cannot take the silence for more than a few seconds: “How could you do that? Do you know what love means?!”

Staring at the floor in embarrassment, he stammers: “I do…”

“Well, what does it mean?”

“It means being happy when I’m with you, and when you’re not around, I write down everything that happens in my notebook so I’d tell you all about it when you’re here. It means that I’m the one who should get you flowers and chocolate, and I should be the one who teaches you how to play football.”

I don’t say anything. His words make a lot of sense. What he spoke of truly sounded like love. If this isn’t love, then what is?

I smile, so he smiles. I am quick to explain where I stand: “But Tamer, I can’t marry you. You have to know this. I’m not going to lie to you!”

“No, we don’t have to get married. It’s not necessary. I love you. That’s what matters.”

I take a deep breath and he can see the relief on my face: “So all is well now? Milk and honey?” he asks.

“Peaches and cream!”

He gives me a small, folded paper: “I wrote this poem for you just now, after I ran away from your house.”

I open it to find that he had decorated the piece of paper with delicate drawings of flowers and birds.

“Love on the trees

A heart in the rain

The sun in the morning

And the moon at night

You are the beauty of the world

And the truth of all things.”

I notice that for the first time he’s written “you” in a poem.  I blush profusely, and I am at loss as to how to respond to this gesture that (definitely) speaks of a deep love. Uncle comes with cold lemonade and sees us surrounded with a halo of shyness and embarrassment and hearts and chirping birds, and he knows we’ve made up. He asks Tamer to pump my bicycle tires again right away so I can play tomorrow.

Before he goes to sleep, my father comes to my room to check on me. He asks me: “So what was it that Tamer did that made you slap him across the face?” I tell him what happened, and he laughs long and hard before telling me: “Darling, your life will be very difficult if every time someone tells you that they love you, you slap them across the face.” I don’t seem to understand what he’s just said, so he kisses me good night and gets up to leave the room.

I hear him laughing quietly in the hallway, murmuring to himself: “She slaps him across the face? Because he loves her? Such a bull-headed southerner!”

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